By Jim Zeigler
Sylacauga, Alabama’s own Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle) has died at 87.
People who hear that I grew up in Sylacauga sometimes ask if I knew Jim Nabors growing up. For you yutes too young to remember, Jim Nabors was a nightclub singer who then became famous as Gomer Pyle on the Andy Griffith Show and, later on his own show, Gomer Pyle, USMC. He can sing like the voice of God in a deep, operatic presentation that is just the opposite of his high-pitched Gomer Pyle voice. “Shame, shame, shame.” “Surprise, surprise, surprise.” “Judy, Judy, Judy.” “Citizen’s arayest. Citizen’s arayest.” “Well, goooooooool-lee.”
I tell them, no. Jim Nabors is 18 years older than I. He was graduating from Sylacauga High School just as I was being brought home from my birth in the Sylacauga Hospital.
It is a bit strange that I had not at least heard of Jim Nabors before I was in the tenth grade and first encountered him. My classmate and friend Angela Danelutt is a first cousin of Jim Nabors and is quite close to him – then and now. Angela’s Uncle, the late T. Hunky Danelutt, was a well-known Sylacauga politico and character. Hunky was also the uncle of Jim Nabors. Uncle Hunky.
I wish Hunky Danelutt were alive and well and still involved in Alabama gubernatorial politics. Hunky picked the winner of the governor’s race every time, far as I can remember. And he got on the winning team early. Getting on early is the best time.
The race that amazed all Sylacauga was when Hunky figured out early that Fob James was his horse in the 1978 governor’s race. Early on, people did not yet know who Fob James was and did not think he could compete with the three B’s: Baxley, Beasley and Brewer. Fob of course led the field and then won the runoff against Bill Baxley. Hunky was in again.
Somehow, I should have known, even in the pre-Andy Griffith days, about this singer from Sylacauga starring in musicals in L.A. and Vegas. Well, here is how I found out.
I was sitting in last period band as we were warming up, getting ready to start band practice. In the tenth grade, I was in my fourth year playing trumpet in the Sylacauga Aggie Half-Million-Dollar Band. Our band director was the legendary Fess Simpkins.
Unannounced, a character walked into the band room from the hallway. He caught everybody’s attention at once with his loud ski sweater, sunglasses and big smile. When he came sauntering in, student trumpeter Barry McAnally laughed, made a catcall, and said “Hollywood. Hollywood.” Barry did not know just how right he was.
Fess called the band to order and introduced the guest.
“This is Jim Nabors, who played clarinet in this band and was our drum major. He now sings in a Broadway musical (that was not exactly right), “The Music Man.” He’s going to conduct you in a song, just as he did when he was drum major here.
Jim Nabors took over. He was funny and charismatic. The other band students and I were instantly impressed and curious about this neat Sylacauga guy.
After Nabors directed us in a piece he apparently knew, Fess took back over and said:
“Now, Jim Nabors will perform a part he does in the musical, “The Music Man.”
Nabors proceeded to knock our socks off, performing “Ya’ Got Trouble” about a pool hall opening in River City. Right here in River City.
Fess wound up this most unusual band class by telling us that Jim Nabors had just landed a part on the Andy Griffith Show playing an Alabama character (is that right?) named Gomer Pyle. We should watch for him. We did.
From that day, I, along with many of my schoolmates who were present for that memorable band class, followed the skyrocketing career of Sylacauga’s own Jim Nabors.
Jim Nabors’ parents remained in Sylacauga for years after Jim became a star. While Jim Nabors’ father was still alive, and before he moved his mother to his estate on Maui, Nabors came back to Sylacauga a lot. Particular at Christmas time.
Unbeknownst to non-Sylacaugans, the town has a nice-sized and active Catholic community at St. Jude Catholic Church. Our family friends, the Joe Clinton family, operators of Dixie-Color Printing in Sylacauga, were active members of St. Jude. They invited my brother Alan Zeigler and me to go with them to midnight mass one foggy Christmas Eve. It became a yearly tradition – midnight mass with the Clintons and a party afterwards at the Clinton home on Lloyd Lane in Sylacauga, which is still the Clinton home.
One Christmas Eve at midnight mass, I heard this booming voice from the choir. In St. Jude church – and I understand in many Catholic churches – the choir is in the upper loft behind the congregation. Behind and up. I strained to look around. There was Jim Nabors in the choir. I could hear him before I could see him.
O Holy Night. It was truly a holy night as Jim Nabors sang with the choir and then did an angelic solo of “O Holy Night.” Right here in Mayberry. I mean, Sylacauga. (To be continued). __Jim Zeigler